With oil prices high, more and more people are turning to wood heat. If you’re one, and you happen to reach for a log from your woodpile that feels like it’s made of concrete, you’re in luck.
It’s hickory, one of our heavier native woods. At just over 50 pounds per cubic foot, it doesn’t compare in weight with ebony, at 73 pounds per cubic foot, but it is denser than the maples, oaks and other hardwoods of our northern forests.
The beauty of hickory
Few homeowners plant hickories, yet there’s no reason that we, as gardeners, cannot appreciate these trees as part of the landscape. And not just as part of the general backdrop greenery. The fall color of hickory leaves is a rich yellow, toasted even warmer with hints of brown.
And for the next few months, there’s hickory’s interesting bark to consider. Besides white birches, hickories are the easiest trees to identify in winter.
Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) is well-named, for the long strips of bark with ends curling away from the trunk do give it a truly shaggy appearance. Shellbark hickory (C. laciniosa) has a similar though less rumpled look.
Shellbark hickory is a lowland tree, and shagbark hickory is an upland tree, but if you want to easily tell these two beauties apart, wait until their branches are again clothed in leaves, then count the leaflets. Shellbark hickory usually has seven leaflets per leaf; shagbark has five leaflets, with little hairs at the tips of the teeth.
So with its regal, upright form, fall color and interesting shaggy bark, why haven’t you seen hickory trees for sale at nurseries? Because they can be difficult to transplant. In its first season, a seedling hickory typically sends a taproot 2 to 3 feet deep into the soil.
Still, if anyone really wanted a hickory tree, cutting a seedling’s taproot early on stops its downward plunge and induces branch roots to grow instead; then, the tree is more easily transplanted.
Beauty more than skin deep
A hickory tree, whether wild or cultivated, offers more than just good looks. In autumn, the four-part husks open up like a child’s toy to release pale brown nuts, each about the size of an acorn and with a sharp point at one end. Inside is a richly flavored, delectable nutmeat — no wonder, since hickory is closely related to pecan.
Although a hard nut to crack, hickory nuts are relished by both humans and animals, especially squirrels.
The difficulty of cracking the nut, and perhaps its somewhat small size, does admittedly limit its appeal. Nonetheless, in 1773, American naturalist John Bartram came upon a Native American village where hickories were being cultivated for their nuts.
Subsequent naturalists pointed out that breeding or selecting better types, then cultivating them under good conditions, could lead to more productive hickories that bore nuts that were tasty and easier to crack. This led to such varieties as Weschcke, Wilcox, Davis, Clark, Berger and Fox, which are offered by some specialty nurseries.
The close kinship of hickory with pecan has not been overlooked, either. The two species have been bred to produce “hicans” in an attempt to mate the cold hardiness of hickory with the easy shelling of pecan. Thus far, most hicans have turned out to be ornamental but not very productive trees.
A few varieties, such as Kenke, Pixley and especially James, do seem promising and worth a try for nut production. (Specialty nurseries offering hickories and hicans include www.grimonut.com and www.NolinNursery. com.)
And back to the wood
Finally, there’s always the wood to consider from this multipurpose tree. Hickory wood is tough and shock resistant, so has been used for ax and hammer handles, golf club shafts and drumsticks. And, of course, hickory makes excellent firewood. Those concrete-like logs give off as much or more heat than any other native wood around — 27 million BTUs per cord.